Saturday, February 27, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto Blue Jays:

2009 Record: 75-87

General Manager: Alex Anthopoulos

Manager: Cito Gaston

Organizational Philosophy: after spending the majority of the last decade spinning their wheels with a below average return on their draft picks and overpriced free agent acquisitions.  The Blue Jays decided to look in-house and reassemble and increase the size and scope of their once-beleagured scouting department.

The former GM J.P. Ricciardi was greeted with good news by sabermetricians when he was first hired in 2001 and took many of the lessons he learned under Oakland A's GM Billy Beane by valuing defense and on-base percentage as a metric for uncovering hidden MLB talent.  Another procedure he learned that eventually backfired was being overally conservative and prefering low-risk college players over raw high school talent come draft day.  This strategy became famous in the Michael Lewis book "Moneyball" and concerning a low-revenue team like the A's; this strategy was best, but Ricciardi had more money to operate and patch up holes via free agency so taking more chances and looking to fill his minor league system with a few high-upside prospects wouldn't have hurt. 

To me, Ricciardi was stuck in the past and when he tried to play the free agent market and lock up a few players long-term, three names come to mind: B.J. Ryan, Vernon Wells and Alex Rios.  Of these three: one is on the verge of retirement, one has been miraculously picked up by another team and the other one continues to bog down the payroll and makes any longterm financial manuverings difficult.  New GM Alex Anthopoulos has been with Ricciardi since 2006 but vows to change the direction of this organization.  He has put a strong emphasis on scouting and player development and has unloaded franchise player Roy Halladay with a percieved degree of success (however, the final analysis depends on how Kyle Drabek, Brett Wallace and Travis d'Arnaud develop).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays:

2009 Record: 84-78

General Manager: Andrew Friedman

Manager: Joe Maddon

Organizational Philosophy: pity the poor Rays! Here is a franchise doing everything right; they draft well, they scout well, they can crunch numbers and stats with the best of them and they have taken this formula and found success through their miraculous World Series run in 2008.  Last offseason, most analysts figured the Rays had the talent and capability to dominate not only the AL East but all of baseball until 2014. However, youth, regression along with a lack of overabundant finances have conspired with one another and have seemingly transformed the Tampa Bay Rays into a very good but not-quite-good-enough team.

Obviously, if the Rays were in the NL East or AL Central talk would center on them being huge playoff contenders but being stuck in the AL East only makes things harder.  Since coming on board in 2005, GM Andrew Friedman took a directionless franchise and installed a sense of purpose from top to bottom.  Friedman knew the Rays would never enjoy the financial benefits the Yanks and Red Sox shared so he implemented a greater focus on player development that installs talent and depth in pitching and offense.  The Rays also use their resources to find value in players disregarded by other franchises, it's a strategy now used by most MLB teams (Astros and Royals seem to be a few of the exceptions).

Looking ahead to 2010, I do expect the Rays to fully contend despite their unfortunate geographical position on the AL map.  I also look forward to them coming up with new operational strategies not yet shared with the public that will give them advantages to compete against both the two reigning superpowers and all of baseball.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Boston Red Sox

Boston Red Sox:

2009 Record: 95-67

General Manager: Theo Epstein

Manager: Terry Francona

Organizational Philosophy: since John Henry bought this team in 2002 and flirted with the idea of hiring Billy Beane as his first GM, the Red Sox have become favorites among statisticians and sabermetricians.  On the financial side, Henry has been a genius in revitalizing the Red Sox franchise and turning them into a major brand name.  Since he purchased them, they have built and sustained a healthy payroll and made a significant profit.

On the front office side, the hiring of Theo Epstein as GM and publically announcing that stathead guru Bill James would come onboard as an advisor made it clear to everyone that the "moneyball" era was here to stay.  Since that time, statistical analysis has evolved past the basic formulas fleshed out in Michael Lewis' 2003 book but the Red Sox (and their later success) were instrumental in giving this minor revolution legitimacy.

As a philosophy, the Red Sox operate as a team of incredibly talented baseball minds that are well-versed in the process of finding market inefficiencies, looking for statistical advantages and locating talent (both here and abroad) showing signs of future MLB success.  The Red Sox have been able to win by using an assortment of strategies such as locating players previously released (David Ortiz) or as marginal free agent pickups (Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar come to mind).  The team also has their fair share of splashy trades (Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Coco Crisp and Jason Bay) but the bulk of their lineup comes through player development.  Jonathon Papelbon, Dustin PedroiaKevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are important homegrown pieces to this team and with their pipeline emerging more and more intriguing prospects (Casey Kelly, Ryan Westmoreland, Michael Bowden, and Josh Reddick to name a few), this franchise has presented itself as an efficient business model.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: New York Yankees

New York Yankees:

2009 Record: 103-59

General Manager: Brian Cashman

Manager: Joe Girardi

Organizational Philosophy: when the New York Yankees first bought Babe Ruth from the cash-strapped Red Sox on December 26 1919, they would soon find out that currency would be their favorite weapon of choice.  Since that time the Yankees have utilized their vast financial resource to varying degrees which has recently brought their payroll to all-time MLB high of $209 million in 2008.  Last offseason we saw the Yankees become very active in the free agent market as they acquired high prices players like CC Sabathia, Mark Teixiera and A.J. Burnett; however, with all the money set to come off the books that year, the Yankees actually reduced their payroll slightly to $201 million.

This offseason, many analysts and agents were expecting the Yanks to break out the Steinbrenner Checkbook since players like John Lackey, Matt Holiday and Jason Bay were available and seeking large long-term deals. During that time there were rumors that the Yankees were looking to trim payroll even further but not too many of us believed it. However, with the offseason just about over it became quite apparent that the Yankees were going to refrain from spending and instead focus on acquiring affordable (albeit by Yankee standards) players needed to bolster their pitching and defense.

Since the rise of the Red Sox in terms of embracing statistical analysis and finding market inefficiencies, I believe that Brian Cashman has slowly grown into one of the better GM's in baseball.  His embrace of the amateur draft and international free agent market to bolster their pitching and offense has bloomed towards modest success (I only say modest since the jury is still out on the longterm success on their prized pitchers, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain); however, their inability to find (non-bullpen) positions for some of their MLB-ready prospects has been a challenge (Austin Jackson, Juan Miranda and Ian Kennedy come to mind and if Jesus Montero doesn't stick at catcher, he could be added as well). Wisely, the Yankees do like to target high-risk/high-reward players through the draft and international market (Andrew Brackman, Slade Heathcott, Dellin Betances and Gary Sanchez) and if these players blossom and if the team has a positional need, they use them and, if not, they become bargaining chips.

Monday, February 22, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Washington Nationals

Washington Nationals:

2009 Record: 59-103

General Manager: Mike Rizzo

Manager: Jim Riggleman

Organizational Philosophy: after the Jim Bowden implosion nearly a year ago, Mike Rizzo was selected (on an interim basis) to get the Nationals on the right path.  When the Nationals came to be in 2005, the team was bogged down from the remnants of the Jeffrey Loria Expo years (Brad Wilkerson, Jose Vidro, Termel Sledge, etc.), of course that season did have some hope (Ryan Zimmerman and John Patterson, before his nagging injuries got the best of him).

Rizzo was hired by the Nationals as the assistant GM in 2006 after a successful stint as the Director of Scouting with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  Since being named as GM, Rizzo has implemented a strict sense of discipline where rules are set and people are expected to show up on time (standard procedure, right? but tell that to Elijah Dukes when he was fined in 2008 for showing up late to a game after talking with D.C. area little leaguers).  The team also wants to install a sense of winning that begins in the minor leagues and will, hopefully, carry over to the pro club.  Rizzo explains that player development will be a vital part of their process and that having a front office presence among all the minor league affliates will be important while he is running the show.

During his time in Arizona, Rizzo gained the reputation of having a great eye for talent and what skills could translate into future baseball success.  In a recent interview, he has stated that he doesn't have a preference for college or high school players and instead goes for the best possible player.  For a team with a lot of losing seasons one would hope their farm system would be better; after RHP Stephen Strasburg, C Derek Norris, SS Danny Espinosa and future closer Drew Storen, the system gets thin rather fast.  I do have high hopes for Mike Rizzo as a GM and if his philosophy of establishing positive clubhouse chemistry mixed with his keen eye for talent; as long as he doesn't make signing veterans to block MLB ready prospects a habit, then things could improve in D.C. faster than we expect.

2010 Team Analysis: New York Mets

New York Mets:

2009 Record: 70-92

General Manager: Omar Minaya

Manager: Jerry Manuel

Organizational Philosophy: according to the recent 2010 Baseball Prospectus, the lone bright spot of last season was the opening of Citi Field and the revenue it helped generate.  Money, obviously, is not an issue when it comes to baseball in New York but what has become an issue for this team is having an efficient front office along with a structured plan of action that is relayed and understood from top to bottom.

Current GM Omar Minaya has been a long respected scout and talent evaluator.  However, his ability to manage a team of baseball operation professionals and surround himself with smart staff all heading to a defined goal is not one of his strong suits and that is fast becoming a problem.  Last season was a disaster for key members of their team: David Wright's power outage was widely publicized and debated over but major injuries to Jose Reyes (hamstring), Carlos Delgado (hip), Carlos Beltran (knee) and Johan Santana (elbow) brought light to the fact this team had no depth.  It's hard to rely on Jeff Francouer, Daniel Murphy and Oliver Perez along with replacements not fit to be on an MLB club.  The Johan Santana trade in '08 helped to gut a farm system, we learned, that wasn't all that deep to begin with.

When discussing their overall "organizational philosophy" the Mets tend to speak in vague terms.  Hitting, pitching and cultivating young players is good they say but their approach to player development has been very questionable.  Since Minaya has been the GM, the amateur draft has become an event where aggressiveness and imagination is usually left behind.  Most picks have been conservative selections or marred by their refusal to go anywhere near a player who may demand money above slot.  Another disturbing trend involves recently fired Director of Player Development, Tony Benazard, and his preference for rushing young talent through the minors.  Minaya is signed on as GM until 2012 (with two club option years), I'm sure it's a little late in the game to expect a mass restructuring of personnel and a commitment to focus on player development.  Sure, the Mets have some intriguing players in the pipeline: OF Fernando Martinez, 1B Ike Davis, SS Wilmer Flores and RHP Jenrry Meija but something tells me the Mets front office is more focused on winning now (see Jason Bay's recent 4 years/$66 million dollare contract along with the acquisition of Gary Matthews Jr., which the Angels do pay $21 million of the $23.5 million remaining) rather than later.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Atlanta Braves

Atlanta Braves:

2009 Record: 86-76

General Manager: Frank Wren

Manager: Bobby Cox

Organizational Philosophy: when Frank Wren took over as GM in 2007 many assumed he wouldn't deviate too much from the way former GM (and current Team President) John Schuerholz's ran things: heavily scout local high school talent with a keen eye on pitching and athleticism, create a sense of team unity as each player moves through the minor league system, develop and/or acquire talented starting pitching but don't overspend on bullpen arms. 

This formula proved to be successful during Schuerholz's tenure and current GM Frank Wren has stuck to this plan for the most part (although his signing of Tom Glavine in '07 offseason did get his first year of supervising the amateur draft off on the wrong foot since it took a pick away from them in the first round; although comp. pick LHP Brett DeVall, who came out of the Florida HS system, is intriguing despite reports that health remains an issue). In terms of spending, he did go a bit overboard during the 2008 offseason.  That spending spree only took half of last season to catch up with them as Derek Lowe failed to impress (4 years/$60 million) and even with Kenshin Kawakami showing he could be a reliable starter in his first season, some analysts do wonder if the 34 year old veteran will be worth the 3 year/$23 million dollar contract he signed. During that same timespan, Chipper Jones came off one of his best seasons and signed a 3 year contract extension worth $42 million.  Jones did start the '09 season on fire but his dramatic decline during the second half had some wondering when the 38 year old would retire.

It's expected for Wren and co. to harness some of last offseason's excessive spending and focus on rebuilding their minor league depth.  During the last few years of Schuerholz's reign, the Braves caught a lot of criticism for not developing the type of pitching prospects Brave fans came to expect.  Former Brave prospects Adam Wainwright, Kevin Millwood and Neftali Perez were shipped off in separate trades while still being developed.  However, last season we saw Tommy Hanson establish himself as one of the NL's most exciting young pitchers and 2010's favorite prospect OF Jason Heyward has fans in Atlanta excited both now and into the future. 

Thursday, February 18, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Florida Marlins

Florida Marlins:

2009 Record: 87-75

General Manager: Michael Hill

Manager: Fredi Gonzalez

Organizational Philosophy: when agent Scott Boras mentioned baseball's necessity to re-examine their current revenue sharing plan all eyes were on the Marlins and their stubborn stance to keep their payroll among the lowest in all of baseball (from $15 million in 2006 to $36 million last season).  The argument stated that teams keeping a small payroll were collecting large sums of revenue funds paid by certain teams who had the advantage of operating in large markets and not putting any of the money back into their own organization.

Over the years, the Marlins have claimed that their main focus in terms of building a team is through strong starting pitching.  However, when talk centered on giving pitchers multi-year deals, the Marlins claimed it went against their philosophy because of the high probability of pitchers getting injured.  Over the last ten years, the Marlins have displayed a knack for drafting and trading well for prospects.  Below are a few names drafted and/or signed or acquired via trade/Rule 5 over the past decade (Josh Beckett, Miguel Cabrera, Dontrelle WillisJosh Johnson, Jeremy Hermida, Hanley Ramirez, Dan Uggla, Cameron Maybin, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez, Sean West, Chris Coughlin, Logan Morrison and Mike Stanton).  In their defense, the team's decision to not extend the contracts and trade players like Beckett, Cabrera and Willis were preemptive decisions as well as financial ones.  In hindsight, the perceived injury risk surrounding Beckett was obviously overblown but Willis' heavy usage and Cabrera's growing waistline were legitimate concerns.

Early in the 2008 season, the team decided to lock up Hanley Ramirez during a good part of his prime years and this offseason had many speculating on the fate of a few arbitration eligible players, specifically Josh Johnson and Dan UgglaRecent reports have team officials mentioning that retaining Johnson and keeping Uggla off the trading block were no brainers, but one has to wonder if the recent stink made by Boras about certain teams suppressing payroll had an effect? Only time will tell if owner Jeffrey Loria will continue to properly fund his baseball operations staff now that he has a new stadium in the horizon or if this is just another pretense on his part until the excitement settles. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Philadelphia Phillies

Philadelphia Phillies:

2009 Record: 93-69

General Manager: Ruben Amaro Jr.

Manager: Charlie Manuel

Organizational Philosophy: in previous seasons, long before Ruben Amaro was promoted to GM in November of 2008, the Phillies were a team designed to be a future contender.  After a World Series win in '08 and an appearance last season, the future is obviously now.

The question for Amaro and company is how to best maintain this current run of success without stamping an expiration date on it.  In less than one year, Amaro has traded for two high caliber starting pitchers (and, later, flipping one for the other in a three team trade), signed key players to extensions and has turned to the free agency market in an effort to sign veterans as short-term options.  In the first part, the trades for Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay were seen as expensive in terms of the minor league talent it would cost.  For Lee, the Phillies had to trade C Lou Marson, SS Jason Donald, RHP Carlos Carrasco and RHP Jason Knapp; as I reported in my Indians analysis only Knapp profiles (now) as a possible ace, however, recent surgery to his shoulder will have many speculating when he'll be at full strength).  To get Halladay this offseason, Lee was traded to the Mariners along with OF Michael Taylor, RHP Kyle Drabek and C Travis d'Arnaud.  This class of prospects are arguably better but d'Arnaud is 21 and did struggle defensively in '09 during his first full season at catcher while Taylor projects as a .300 hitter with above average power and Drabek has been mentioned as a front rotation starter since he was drafted in the first round in 2006.

These were a lot of young pieces to give away and for a team predominantly in their 30's one has to question if this was truly in the best interest of the organization.  Looking over their recent list of top prospects, the Phillies do have near MLB ready talent in OF Domonic Brown and RHP Phillipe Aumont (acquired along with Halladay from the Mariners) but the rest of the farm is loaded with high-upside low level players.  In terms of player development, this team loves to acquire high-risk high-reward athletes and power arm pitchers.  It's a gamble that doesn't guarantee consistent success but when one of these players hit... they hit big.

Monday, February 15, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Kansas City Royals

Kansas City Royals:

2009 Record: 65-97

General Manager: Dayton Moore

Manager: Trey Hillman

Organizational Philosophy: since his arrival after the 2006 season, a lot of hope has been placed on Dayton Moore's shoulders in turning this franchise around.  Moore began his baseball career as a scout for the Atlanta Braves and rose quickly through the ranks before becoming the assistant GM under then Braves GM John Schuerholz.  Upon being hired as the Royals GM, Moore made no secret of being a longtime fan of the team and his reputation as a shrewd talent evaluator used to operating under a small market budget made him seem perfect for the job.

During the 2006 offseason, Moore vowed to turn this organization around by focusing more on the amateur draft and international market (two areas the previous administation somewhat ignored) in an effort to strengthen build through player development.  However, the process has been rather erratic as the Royals have been frequent players in the free agent market and made some questionable signings (Jose Guillen, Mike Jacobs, Kyle Farnsworth, Juan Cruz, Rick Ankiel and Scott Posednik) while certain affordable prospects (Kila Ka'aihue, Mitch Maier) were left to languish within the system or traded away (Farnsworth and Cruz replacing Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez).  Moore has been widely criticized for saying one thing but doing the complete opposite ("pitching is the currency of baseball" but then using his early draft picks in '07 and '08 to grab bats; it's not fair since it's still relatively early but time will tell if grabbing Mike Moustakas over Jarrod Parker, Madison Bumgardner, Aaron Poreda or Rick Porcello (the latter being expensive, I know) in '07 or taking Eric Hosmer over Christian Friedrich, Andrew Cashner or even 1B Justin Smoak, for that matter, were wise moves).

Instead of taking the example of other AL Central teams in smaller markets (Minnesota and Cleveland), Kansas City seems to have followed in the footsteps of the Ken Williams led Chicago White Sox where overpriced bullpen arms and speedy outfielders are taken despite their price and those lucky to make it through the minor league ranks better impress early and often... I'm sure with three full seasons of Dayton Moore as the GM, Royals were expecting things to be much diffferent.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

2010 Team Analysis: Cleveland Indians

Cleveland Indians:

2009 Record: 65-97

General Manager: Mark Shapiro

Manager: Manny Acta

Organizational Philosophy: since Mark Shapiro took over as GM in 2001, the Indians have utilized the same philosophy practised by previous GM John Hart by focusing on player development and cultivating young talent up the middle.  Due to financial necessity, the team has shipped off some of its high profile stars like CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez and Cliff Lee but the returns are either still being debated (Matt LaPorta, Nick Hagadone and Jason Knapp's run with the injury bug) or underwhelming as the months go by (Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Justin Masterson and Carlos Carrasco can be serviceable players but probably not superstars).  In terms of developing pitching, the Indians have struggled to replace their departing aces as Aaron Laffey's progression has stalled and Jeremy Sowers inability to strike out MLB hitters have caused this team to remain in the rebuilding stage.

Cleveland also faces the same economic hurdles that's causing the Detroit Tigers to reasses their current business model.  Playing in a city overwrought with unemployment and financial instability has sunk this organization among the bottom of all small-market teams.  However, unlike Detroit, the Indians have been fluent in the practice of micro-management and operating with a small budget (last season they committed $81 million to payroll which was their highest budget since 2002; this season they have roughly $50 million spent and that number isn't expected to rise too much).

One factor that makes the Indians front office stand above many others is their ability to effectively marry statistical and scouting capabilities into one forward thinking process.  In 2003 it was revealed that the Indians utilized a confidential computer system called Diamondview which measures a players efficiency and measures the statistical impact expected in order to sell high or buy low on any player.  After the 2010 season, the front office will attempt another shift as Mark Shapiro assumes the role of Team President and longtime assistant GM Chris Antonetti moves into full-time General Manager.  Shapiro will focus on the business side of baseball as they look for new ways to stay afloat financially while keeping their streamline operation at maximum power.